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Our Troubled Times and the Ancestry of Fascism by Bertrand Russell

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Blogging my thoughts:    The Ancestry of Fascism                  28th February, 2017

I picked up Bertrand Russell’s book, In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays, in 1975 while traveling through India: (Bombay: George Allen & Unwin (India) Private Ltd., 1935, reprinted in 1972 and 1973). What finally prompted me to read it after all these years was his essay: “The Ancestry of Fascism,” because the recent election and developments have been deeply troubling for many of us.

Before presenting my notes from Bertrand Russell’s essay, let me preface them by several considerations. First, another approach to the German fascist model might be the racist model of the Restoration. In it White supremacy after the Civil War again reared up its ugly head. After all, after Lincoln freed the slaves, Southerners refused to be Republicans and after the Democratic Kennedy-Johnson Civil Rights legislation, the Dixiecrats became Republican. If that is questioned, then remember that while signing the legislation Lyndon Johnson stated, “We [Democrats] just lost the South for a generation.” But although the pathology of racism’s center of gravity shifted in that respect, it is certainly not isolated to that party.

Secondly, never could I fathom how anti-Semitism helped absolutize the power of Hitler. But the divisiveness that it brought to the grassroots of German society made power ascend to the top. People were turning each other in, even for a distant Jewish ancestor. The campaign against immigrants functions this way as well, just like racism. Where is the outrage that our Native American interests have been trampled over with the Dakota oil pipe-line once again? When no solidarity is possible among the people, the people lose all their power. It really amounts to a variation on the theme “divide and conquer.”

Thirdly, in a very divided country, with our government in gridlock, we were caught flat-footed by Putin. Do we know how Paul Manafort came to be the Republican campaign manager, when he was also that of Victor Yanukovych, the corrupt pro-Russian President of the Ukraine, who was run out of office in 2014 because he stood for Putin and Russia against Ukrainian interests? The outcome: a civil war. Just what Putin ordered.

Isn’t it strange how Putin tries to undermine western democracy and how the Republican candidate repeatedly claimed that our election was rigged? That did not make him reject his surprise victory. He even blatantly called for the hacking of Hillary’s 30,000 deleted emails, while ongoing Russian hacking was taking place! Also, acting as if the democracy of the United States was equally as corrupt as the Russian dictatorship plays right into Putin’s interest to destabilize the E.U. and its Western Democratic values.

Finally, look at the present attack on the critical press by calling it the enemy of the people! According to Nina Khrushcheva, the great granddaughter of Khrushchev, the language of “autocracy of state nationalism is always the same regardless of country…but the formulas of insult, humiliation, domination, branding, enemy-forming, and name calling are always the same.”[1] Everybody knows that the democratic candidate was less corrupt than the republican one, but the candidate’s branding, “crooked Hillary” stuck. Then consider all the fake news launched by the Russians.

Now consider, however, the nascent Fascist, German and Italian models that dissolved their democracies into virulent Fascist regimes for our present trouble. One cannot help think of Sinclair Lewis’ warning, It Can’t Happen Here, because some of the new developments make us think, “Maybe it can.”

Bertrand Russell finds the roots of Fascism in the German philosophy that emphasize the will. I always related Schopenhauer to it, but he accuses Fichte. In such a philosophy, whatever a person desires to be true is true. With that the notion of objective truth is precluded. Russell indicates that such people are irrational. Reason, we don’t often realize, is a form of non-violence, because persuasion replaces force.

In practice, according to Russell, reason can be defined by three characteristics: first, to reiterate, it relies on persuasion rather than force. Secondly, it seeks to persuade by arguments, which the person using them believes to be completely valid. And thirdly, in forming opinions, it uses observation and induction and intuition as little as possible.[2]

The first characteristic rules out inquisition; the second rules out propaganda [today this relates to fake news]. Hitler’s ideal was that propaganda, which “could sink a deep mental grip on the masses of people.” (p. 56) Russell illustrates what the third prevents by quoting President Andrew Jackson.[3] He would be prevented from saying, “The God of the universe intended the great [Mississippi] valley to belong to one nation” and Russell states, “which was self-evident to him and his hearers, but is not easily demonstrated to one who questions it.” (56)

A CEO of a business empire turned presidential candidate can say, “I alone can fix it” and must feel he is a very great man. Nietzsche championed exceptional individuals (supermen) over the masses suffering from slave mentalities. Heraclitus felt that all the adult men among the Ephesians should hang themselves and leave only the beardless youth, because they cast out Hermodorus, the best among them saying, “We will have none who are best among us; if there be any such, let him be so elsewhere among others.”[4] For Nietzsche humankind was a means to an end rather than its people being ends in themselves. Russell remarks that the cult of the great man always has the minor premise: “I am that great man.” (58)

Bertrand Russell lists the common characteristics of fascism as follows: it seeks the good in the will rather than in feeling or cognition, it values power more than happiness, force more than argument, war to peace, aristocracy to democracy, and propaganda to scientific inquiry. Nietzsche stepped out into these positions naked and unashamed. (58)

In another place, Russell describes fascists as modern irrationalists. To their proclivity to emphasize the will as opposed to thought and feeling, he adds, that they glorify power and denigrate observation and inductive testing, rather believing in their own “prepositions.” (63)

Groups, according to Russell, vulnerable to the fascist message, were those who had no raison d’être any longer, because they had scarcely any chance of fulfilling their hopes. Back in 1932 industrialists and militarists felt that their hopes might be realized by fascism and in hardly any other way: “The fact that their hopes can only be achieved by the ruin of civilization [today, let’s say democracy] does not make them irrational, but only Satanic.” (64-65) For today this brings to mind the Faustian bargain of the Republicans. There is a psychopathology in that party, witness their obstruction of the previous administration and President Obama’s candidate for the supreme court, but they do have conservative principles and cannot be compared to Nazis, about whom Russell is writing.

He notes that Hitler accepted and rejected doctrines completely on political grounds without even bringing in the notions of truth or falsehood. The conception of objective truth was abandoned. (66) Thus, these governments debauch the mental life of their subjects. (67-68)

Russell adds that the fever of nationalism…is [also] one form of the cult of unreason. (68) I would like to quote the last sentences of his essay in full:

Reason being impersonal makes universal co-operation possible. Unreason since it represents private passions, makes strife inevitable.  It is for this reason that rationality, in the sense of an appeal to a universal and impersonal standard of truth, is of extreme importance to the well-being of the human species, not only in the ages in which it easily prevails, but also, and even more, in those less fortunate times in which it is despised and rejected as a vain dream of those who lack the virility to kill where they cannot agree. (68)

Again, Bertrand Russell underscores how reasoning is a method of non-violence, which makes the debates in our legislature and in executive consultations very important. Hopefully our democratic traditions in America are very strong. Those of the Weimar Republic in Germany were fragile and weak, so these notes from Bertrand Russell’s essay on the “Ancestry of Fascism” are warnings. But danger signals are a propagandist in the meeting of the principals, where the truth for analyzing situation of crisis and development of policies is paramount.[5] The fact that the president wants his name everywhere on his towers makes one feel he wants a cult about his personality. Calling the press an enemy of the people, is not a statement that meets argumentation with counter-arguments, but some kind of coercion. His language is not conducive to partners in adversity persuading each other about the truth. When observation makes clear that the first weeks of his administration were chaotic and disruptive, his description that they ran like a fine-tuned machine show that what he wants to be true is true. In the words of Groucho Marx: what are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

The question becomes, can this administration reset and self-correct or will we face “What Can’t Happen Here.”

Peter D. S. Krey


[1] New York Times, 02/27/2017, page A13.

[2] In Praise of Idleness, page 56. I will place the page numbers in parentheses henceforth, because these are notes mostly in his words from Bertrand Russell’s book, and more easily referenced in that way.

[3] He is responsible for the 1830’s Native American Trail of Tears, where 125,000 Indians were rounded up and evicted from the southern states and in what amounted to a death march to the West. A similarity seems to exist between the “Indian Problem” of the day and the “immigrant problem” today. Our present president resembles Jackson by calling to start “throwing them the hell out of our country” now referring to millions of immigrants.

[4] Ibid., 107-108. Sadly, Martin Luther also believed in the great man theory.

[5] He has recently been displaced from that meeting by McMasters, but he still has the president’s ear in too many places.


Written by peterkrey

April 6, 2017 at 8:22 pm

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Zombies Raised Back to Life: Lent V April 2, 2017 Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Oakland, CA

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Lent V April 2, 2017 Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Oakland, CA

Ezekiel 37:1-14 Psalm 130 Romans 8:6-11 John 11:1-45

Zombies Raised Back to Life

What a wonderful sermon the Reverend the pastor preached for Bobby McClain funeral on Friday. Her preaching brought the living word of God into our lives. There are words and there are living words. God comes into our hearts in such living words and raises our dead old selves into the newness of our lives in Christ.

Did you notice in our gospel lesson how many misunderstandings took place between the disciples and Jesus? They say that Lazarus is ill. Jesus says that his illness will demonstrate the glory of God. Jesus says that Lazarus is sleeping, meaning that he died. They say, it is good that he is sleeping because that means he’s all right. He has to tell them straight out that Lazarus is dead. When Jesus is speaking about daylight, he is talking about a different light from the light that merely comes from the sun, because we can walk in that light and have eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, and a heart that does not understand. We have to walk in the light of Christ with Christ shining in our hearts.

When the light of Christ is not in us we can confuse death and life. That makes it important for us to think about sickness, death, and resurrection in the midst of our lives and not only when we hear God’s Words confronting death in a funeral. Even right here and now we can be a patch of dried up bones that need the living words of a prophet to raise us up.

Let the breath, the Spirit of God, come into our old dried up bones, O Lord, connect up our bones and let sinews, muscles, and skin cover us, and raise us up to be your people with eyes that see, ears that hear and a heart that understands what you would have us do, good Lord. Amen

Lazarus was dead and Jesus raised him back to life. A minister who was a friend of mine considered Lazarus Jesus beloved disciple. Jesus truly loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who was probably their bread winner and Mary and Martha were probably dependent on him. Mary and Martha prepared the food for the house-church that Lazarus supported, like you all supporting this house of God, Bethlehem, and all you dear Mary and Martha’s who continually prepare the food, like for Friday’s reception. You have to realize for Jesus, you are beloved disciples. Still I think “the” beloved disciple was John. That is why this is the most intimate and heart-felt spiritual Gospel out of the four.

Jesus waits two days and then goes to Bethany, which is a suburb of Jerusalem. At that time, they thought the soul still hovered over the body three days and on the fourth day it already went to heaven. This was, therefore, a very great miracle. And then going to Jerusalem meant that their lives were in danger. They were putting their lives on the line to bring life. That is the irony God’s servants face in this lost and sinful world, which takes lives, but does not know how to give them and raise up those who are sick or have died. Jesus the King of Heaven has to forgive us. Notice that it is Thomas, doubting Thomas, who says to all the other disciples, “Let us go and die with him.”

There is physical health and there is spiritual health. We can be sick and still have spiritual health and we can be healthy and be very sick or have destructive spirits. It would be good for a serial killer to get sick and die. It would be better for that killer to be converted. We prayed for the healing of a person in a Brooklyn congregation of mine, and he was as horrible a person after he recovered as he had been before. The son of my medical doctor there, a body-builder, a perfect specimen of health, killed himself. We need the spirit of Christ in us and we need to walk in the light of Christ to receive life and life more abundantly.

Thomas said, “Let us go die with him.” Among the German NAZI’s Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Martin Luther King said, “If you’ve got nothing worth dying for, then you’ve got nothing worth living for.” Putting our lives in danger like that follows Jesus words: those who save their lives will lose them and those who deny themselves and die for Christ and righteousness sake will save them. But we have trouble believing Jesus. Fake news and the deception of the devil, God’s adversary, makes us cling to our lives for the sake of a mirage in the desert; while clinging to God’s Word and God’s Christ brings us into a genuine oasis. We can chase a delusion and find that it is a mirage and lose the oasis that we have if we deny ourselves and remain faithful. In his writing, The Freedom of a Christian, Luther speaks of a greedy dog with a bone in its mouth looking into a stream and seeing his own reflection: a dog with a bone in its mouth. Greedily the dog tries to snatch away the bone from the image in the water and loses both his own bone and the image.[1]

Like how many of us men fall in love with a movie star and disregard the real woman in our life, while that of the movie star is only an image and the real person behind the image is a sinner and saint just like every other woman, like every other man.

     So Jesus’ raising up Lazarus from the dead is not only a physical thing, but also a spiritual, a symbolic thing. Raising a disciple like Lazarus from sickness and death is good, but not someone like a Herod, “a troglodyte willing to kill toddlers” in order to kill the Christ child, as Nadia Bolz-Weber said in her book Accidental Saints.[2]

     Do you know the story in the Book of Kings?[3] Isaiah told King Hezekiah back in old Judea that he should get ready to die of his sickness. The King turned his eyes to the wall and cried bitterly. God relented and sent Isaiah back to cure him and tell him that God would give him another 15 years of life. Babylonian envoys, like Russians, came to celebrate his recovery with him and he showed them all the treasures in the temple. A few kings later, the Babylonians came with an army, stole all the temple treasure, burned down the temple and took all of Judea into the Babylonian Captivity. Thus just a short time later Hezekiah’s life spelled the death of Judea and its Babylonian Captivity. Hezekiah was happy. He did not care if it was not going to happen in his reign.

     Note how Jesus did not hurry down to Bethany to prevent Lazarus from dying, although Martha, Mary, and the crowds reproached him for it. “Couldn’t this man who opened the eyes of a blind man have kept this man from dying?”

     Real death is our disconnection from God. Jesus does not prevent our sickness, suffering, and death; but pulls us through to a new life on the other side. We should have prayed for the spiritual healing of that horrible man in Brooklyn, so that he would have become a person filled with the light of Christ. Then his physical healing would have been good. Even in dying, Christ remained the life of Lazarus. And although Lazarus came back to life, he would die again. Actually, because so many people believed and came to Jesus because of Lazarus, the authorities killed him. And of course, after Jesus raised him, the authorities fearful of the Romans said, we had better kill Jesus, too, “because it is better that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation perish.”[4]

     Thus, the life of God was extinguished on the cross by the religious leaders who feared death and sided with those who take away lives rather than those who bring life and healing. Of course, what they thought would save them did just the opposite. The Romans legions came, destroyed Jerusalem, and burnt down the temple and the Jews had to wait almost 2,000 years before they could return to Israel. Had they denied themselves and said, let us die with Jesus, then God could have saved them.

     We are in the midst of events today that we can be sure has Jesus weeping. The number of refugees in our time has surpassed the number after World War II. The Middle East is in turmoil. The masses are starving in the Sudan. And here in the U.S.A. we keep on being divided. We need to call upon Jesus to raise us up, because we know how much he loves us. Like the Prophet Ezekiel, Jesus our Lord will look at our field of dry bones and raise us up, the living people of God, who have something to live for, which we are dying to share with this sorry world. Jesus our Lord wants to be our friend and change us all from life-takers into life-givers, who spend our lives and are dying to bring the Holy Spirit of life, joy, hope, faith, and peace.

     Just recently there were so many movies about zombies, the living dead, unstoppable, coming to kill and swallow all the living with death. Lazarus must have looked like a zombie coming out of his tomb. But many among us with completely healthy bodies have spirits and souls that are dead within us. Deeply disturbed, Christ has to call you and me by name: come out of your graves, let yourselves be unwrapped from your grave-clothes by the forgiveness of your sins and enter the new life that follows in Jesus’ way, the truth and not fake-news, and the life; indeed, the very source of life, Jesus our Lord.

     May the dear Lord Christ breathe the Holy Spirit over us and into us, make our old dry bones rattle back together, bring back our bodies, and make us come alive once more, with eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts throbbing with compassion for all the walking dead, who refuse to lie down and need the new life and the Holy Spirit that will save us and them.

In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul states, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you.”[5]



[1] Luther has meat in the dog’s mouth, but to make the point, I said and translated “a bone.” See Philip and Peter Krey, Editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 79.

[2] Sorry, I borrowed the book, so I can’t reference the page.

[3] 2 Kings, chapter 20.

[4] John 11:50.

[5] Romans 8: 11.

Written by peterkrey

April 6, 2017 at 7:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized